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Stardust Just Hours from Earth

The Stardust spacecraft crossed the Moon’s orbit at 1730 GMT on Saturday and will close the distance to Earth in sixteen and a half hours (an indication of how fast the vehicle is moving). The craft performed a final burn for course adjustment before passing the Moon’s orbit. Approaching the Earth, it will deploy its return capsule for a scheduled landing at the Utah Test and Training Range on Sunday (the primary spacecraft will enter a Solar orbit after release).

The capsule is scheduled to enter Earth’s atmosphere over northern California at an altitude of 125 kilometers, traveling some 46,440 kilometers per hour (28,860 miles per hour). This is the fastest return of any man-made object on record. Landing is now expected at 1012 GMT on Sunday, after which the capsule will be taken to the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground (Utah); the collector grid (containing cometary and interstellar samples) will then be moved to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

You can follow events at the Stardust Web page, where an interactive Flash presentation and a podcast, among other features, are available for background information. For tips on viewing the Stardust arrival from the ground, see a related NASA page, which includes useful maps for those hoping to see what could be a spectacular reentry. And, of course, remember that the event will be covered on NASA TV. For those without access to that outlet, Out of the Cradle will be providing live updates as the touchdown occurs.